Senators Grill VIHFA Officials About Unpaid Contractors

VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith, far right, interact with lawmakers during a hearing break Tuesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith, far right, interact with lawmakers during a hearing break Tuesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

Lawmakers praised Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority officials for managing complex hurricane recovery repairs, but they also peppered them with questions on the nonpayment of construction workers involved in the territory’s rebuilding process, especially those under Emergency Home Repairs V.I.

VIHFA officials appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Infrastructure/Communication, chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), in the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Building on St. Thomas.

AECOM, the territory’s prime contractor, won the the bid for the $186-million EHRVI contract, beating six other firms, according to VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith. AECOM has been in the territory for more than a decade, Griffith said, through its subsidiary AECOM Carib, doing disaster work. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency allowed permanent roofing repairs, HFA added APTIM, which received the second highest score in the bidding process, as a prime contractor, according to Griffith.

“This program is a FEMA reimbursement program, which requires many layers of reviews and approvals before funds are released,” Griffith said. “The territory has paid prime contractor, AECOM, $136 million, year-to-date, for the work performed. AECOM in turn has paid its subcontractors.”

Sen. Alicia Barnes (D-STT) said she received detailed information the night before from affected contractors, including dates and hours worked that they have not received compensation for. Barnes asked Griffith what level of oversight HFA exercises over the different levels of contractors under the prime contracting companies.

“HFA have contracts with just AECOM and APTIM, so we make sure we pay AECOM and APTIM, so AECOM and APTIM in turn have to pay their subcontractors,” said Griffith. “Anytime there is a complaint, we’ve met with both the local and federal Department of Labor to make sure the contractors are taken care of, especially on the individual basis.”

Griffith said AECOM does have a $50-million line of credit used to pay contractors. VIHFA is also working with FEMA and the Public Finance Authority to expedite the release of payments.

Barnes also asked if there have been attempts to consolidate the lengthy inspection process, but Griffith said no.

“We’re not going to do that because the inspections are what catches most of the mistakes,” said Griffith.

According to Griffith, the subcontracting companies perform inspections on repairs made on residents’ homes to ensure the quality of the work. AECOM then performs its own inspections, followed by VIHFA’s inspections. If VIHFA finds errors in the work done, the job gets sent back down the line before VIHFA calls on the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to do another inspection.

“It’s rough on homeowners, but it’s something that is necessary to protect the homeowners as well to make sure at the end of the day, we have a product that is code-compliant and a roof that can withstand the hurricanes,” said Griffith.

The extensive inspections meant to protect homeowners also prolong the payment process. FEMA will only release payments once inspections have been made and the work found to be satisfactory, a process that could take months. This means that the onus falls on contractors and subcontractors to acquire funding to pay their workers on time.

Griffith also acknowledged complaints the agency received on housing repairs, particularly on Phase 2 that covers permanent repairs. Major complaints involve contractors improperly placing tarps on homes, causing damage to drop ceilings and the interior of homes when it rains. Homeowners also complain about improperly installed gutters, as well as contractors improperly using a chalk-line for roof screws and missing the rafters, which then causes screws to protrude from the inside of the roof.

Grffith said the contractors are responsible for correcting all the reported defects, many of which are discovered by the quality control inspectors even before homeowners complain, he said. The EHRVI Program has dismissed more than 70 crews due to workmanship issues, according to Griffith.

So far, the EHRVI program has received 10,353 applications, Griffith said, of which 7,993 have been determined eligible for the program. In Phase 1, the temporary repairs phase, EHRVI repaired 5,099 homes, and 1,198 homes in Phase 2. Griffith estimates EHRVI will complete permanent roof repairs on approximately 1,800 homes by the federal program deadline on March 31.

With the March 31 deadline looming, the Office of the Governor is also requesting FEMA to approve the new USVI managed Permanent Housing Construction Repair and New Construction Pilot Program, or PHC. Griffith said after the deadline, the territory is prepared to move from the EHRVI program to the new PHC program to work on the reconstruction of homes too badly damaged for the EHRVI program.